UN Agency Calls for Increased Metal Recycling

United Nations’ Environment Programme says metal recycling strengthens the “green” economy.

May 31, 2011
Recycling Today Staff

A report released by the United Nations’ Environment Programme (UNEP) finds that less than one-third of 60 metals studied have reached a recycling rate greater than 50 percent.

The UNEP report also says that 34 metals have a recycling rate of less than 1 percent. The report adds that despite the low recycling rates, some of these metals are essential to develop clean technologies such as batteries for hybrid cars and wind turbines.

The report, titled “Recycling Rates of Metals: A Status Report,” was compiled by UNEP’s International Resource Panel. It was released by Achim Steiner, the UN’s under-secretary general and UNEP's executive director, at the London Metal Exchange and in Brussels during “Green Week.”

The report says lead is the most recycled metal. Nearly 80 per cent of products that contain lead, mainly batteries, are recycled when they reach the end of their useful life.

More than half of the iron, steel and stainless steel, as well as platinum, gold, silver and most other precious metals, are recycled.

Meanwhile, the report says, globally there is virtually no recycling of indium, which is used in semiconductors, energy efficient light emitting diodes (LEDs), advanced medical imaging and photovoltaics.

Other metals with limited recycling rates now include specialty metals like tellurium and selenium, which are both used for high efficiency solar cells; and neodymium and dysprosium, used for wind turbine magnets; lanthanum for hybrid vehicle batteries; and gallium, used for LEDs.

"By failing to recycle and simply disposing of these kinds of metal, economies are foregoing important environmental benefits and increasing the possibility of shortages," says Thomas Graedel, professor of industrial ecology at Yale University and one of the report’s authors. "If we do not have these materials readily available at reasonable prices, a lot of modern technology simply cannot happen."

The report notes that some estimates claim that recycling metals is between two and 10 times more energy efficient than smelting the metals from virgin ores.

The report cites evidence that the era of cheap and easily accessible ores is running out. According to UNEP, about three times more material needs to be moved for the same ore extraction than a century ago, with corresponding increases in land disruption, water impacts and energy use.

During a press conference announcing the release of the report, John Atherton, director, International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), said, "We hope this report encourages policy makers and product designers to adopt life cycle thinking when planning for materials recycling."

The report makes several recommendations on how recycling can be boosted:
• Encouraging product design that makes disassembly and material separation easier
• Improving waste management and recycling infrastructure for complex end-of-life products in developing countries and emerging economies
• In industrialized countries, addressing the fact that many metal-containing products are 'hibernating' in places likes drawers and closets and others, such as mobile phones, are all too often end up being disposed of
• Improve recycling technologies and collection systems to keep pace with more complex products created with an increasingly diverse range of metals and alloys.

"More and more products use an ever wider range of components with highly specialized materials with very special properties. Without them, performance would suffer - slower computers, fuzzier medical images, heavier and slower aircraft, for example. Recovering such element is a recycling challenge requiring a far smarter response than at present," says Graedel.

Those wishing to download the report "Recycling Rates of Metals: A Status Report" can go to www.unep.org/resourcepanel/metals_recycling.